January 15th, 2021

Asia Today: Thailand counts more virus cases, limits travel


By The Associated Press on January 5, 2021.

A security guard wearing a mask to protect from the coronavirus walks a heart shape in Beijing on Monday, Jan. 4, 2021. Wary of another wave of infections, China is urging tens of millions of migrant workers to stay put during next month's Lunar New Year holiday, usually the world's largest annual human migration. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

BANGKOK – Thailand reported 527 new coronavirus cases, most of them migrant workers who already were isolated, and the government said it was tightening movements of people around the country.

Thailand has been struggling with a sudden virus surge after months of hardly any cases of domestic transmission. Field hospitals were being set up in parts of five provinces with many cases.

Large parts of the country, including the capital Bangkok, are under various lockdown restrictions, and the government said it will additionally restrict travel between virus-hit provinces to goods, cargo and necessary travel, and set up checkpoints on some roads.

Of the new cases confirmed Tuesday, 439 were migrants, 82 were local transmissions and six were in quarantined travellers, the Center of COVID-19 Situation Administration said. The total was a drop from the 745 registered Monday, the all-time high in Thailand, where the first case of the virus outside China was detected last January.

Most of the surge since last month has been in Samut Sakhon province, next to Bangkok, among migrant workers living in dormitories and employed in fish markets and factories. A field hospital next to the market is treating the infected migrants.

Although it has cancelled public activities and gatherings and shut schools, bars and other places where people gather, the government has not yet taken measures as strict as those that it imposed in March – when it successfully stamped out local transmission.

Malls and department stores remain open with social distancing required, and indoor dining at restaurants is allowed until 9 p.m.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha instead implored people to stay home.

“We don’t want to lock down the entire country because we know what the problems are, so can you all lock down yourselves?” he said. “This is up to everyone, if you don’t want to get infected just stay home for 14 to 15 days. If you think like this then things will be safe, easier for screening.”

The government also has been scrambling to try to acquire more vaccines after an initial period of complacency.

Prayuth said Monday that Thailand is seeking to secure 63 million doses, which wouldn’t cover half of its population of about 70 million. It has so far about 28 million doses on order for later in the year.

In other developments in the Asia-Pacific region:

– Qantas Airways has begun selling seats on international flights from July 1 despite the Australian government’s ban on most residents leaving the country. Australia’s flagship airline said on Tuesday it is selling tickets on the expectation that international travel “will begin to restart from July.” “We continue to review and update our international schedule in response to the developing COVID-19 situation,” it said in a statement. Since March, Australia has prevented most citizens and residents from leaving so they won’t bring the coronavirus back to the island nation. Travellers from New Zealand are the only ones spared 14 days of hotel quarantine on arrival in Australia in recognition of the near neighbour’s success in controlling the virus. Australian Transport Minister Michael McCormack said borders will be reopened when international arrivals do not pose a risk to Australians. “Decisions about when international travel resumes will be made by the Australian government,” McCormack said in a statement. “Operations and ticket sales on particular routes are commercial decisions for airlines.”

– China has designated parts of Hebei province near Beijing as a coronavirus high danger zone after 14 new cases of COVID-19 were found. Eleven of those cases were in Shijiazhuang city. Parts of the city will undergo stricter testing and isolation measures, and areas of another Hebei city with new cases were registered as medium risk areas. Medical investigators were looking into whether a single event such as a family gathering had been the origin of many of the cases. Wary of another wave of infections, China is urging migrant workers to stay put during the Lunar New Year holiday. Classes are being dismissed early and tourists are being told not to come to Beijing for holidays.

– Indonesia will begin COVID-19 vaccinations on Jan. 13, with President Joko Widodo to be the first recipient. Minister of Health Budi Gunadi Sadikin said Tuesday that other government ministers will receive the vaccine after the president. A broader program will begin the following day and will prioritize 1.3 million health workers and 17.4 million public officers. The vaccine from China’s Sinovac Biotech must still receive emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Supervisory Agency and halal approval from the Indonesian Ulema Council. According to the Health Ministry, it will take 15 months for Indonesia to vaccinate its total population of 181.5 million people. On Tuesday, the country reported 7,445 new COVID-19 cases, bringing its confirmed total to 779,548, including 23,109 deaths.

– India has reported 20 more cases of a new fast-spreading variant of the coronavirus originally found in Britain, taking its confirmed total to 58. Health officials haven’t said whether the infections were found in people who have returned from the U.K., or if the variant is circulating locally. Overall confirmed cases of the coronavirus, however, remain on a downturn trajectory since hitting a mid-September peak. India has reported more than 10.3 million cases of the virus, second in the world behind the United States, and over 150,000 deaths. It is expected to soon begin a massive vaccination program targeting about 300 million people by August, including healthcare workers, front-line personnel including police, and those considered particularly vulnerable. The government has granted emergency-use approval for two vaccines, one developed by Oxford University and U.K.-based drug maker AstraZeneca, and another by Indian company Bharat Biotech and a government institute. The Indian vaccine was hailed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a success in India’s self-reliance push but ran into controversy because the country’s regulator took the step without publishing information about its efficacy. The All India Drug Action Network, a watchdog, said it was “baffled to understand the scientific logic” in approving “an incompletely studied vaccine.” Neither of the vaccines approved Sunday requires the ultra-cold storage facilities that some others do. They can be stored in refrigerators, making them more feasible for the country.

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